Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 2003 /26 Elul 5763

Paul Greenberg

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When editorial writers collide | PROVIDENCE, R.I. — There's a reason we call ourselves a National Conference of Editorial Writers rather than an association or union or anything more unified than a conference. Organizing this bunch would be as easy as herding a few hundred particularly egocentric cats.

Each year we meet in a different locale to criticize each other's work and generally mill around. Our annual meeting is a kind of anarchists convention. And now it's already the same time next year.

By now we've grown old together, celebrated each other's joys, mourned each other's losses, clucked over each other's scandals and met in so many cities they all blend together into one big hotel banquet room.

And, oh, yes, from time to time we've fought like Hell over issues that seemed of absolute, life-and-death importance at the time. But it turns out that what mattered to us most in the end was each other. By now I even like the editorial writers I don't like, if you know what I mean. It's like living in a small town that materializes only once a year.

As with a symphony concert, my favorite part of these conferences is the first, as the various players begin to drift in and warm up, producing a muted, anticipatory cacophony.

Every type of editorial writer is represented here, from the frustrated politicians to the disinterested observers of the human condition. There are the captains of opinion on the great, harrumphing metropolitan dailies - and the one-man bands who do everything on their pages from edit the letters to draw the cartoons. Their little skiffs fly their colors proudly next to the great battleships; the whole fleet's in.

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At lunch and dinner, in the bar and over coffee, squeezed onto buses or into the hotel elevator, you may find yourself sandwiched between Righteous Indignation and Agonizing Reappraisal. We editorial writers come in all sizes, shapes and attitudes.

Officially we're here to criticize one another's work the first, long day of the convention. Then we clean up the gore and get down to the real business of the National Conference of Editorial Writers: some serious fellowshipping.

As for the state of American editorial writing, not enough has changed since the late great H.L. Mencken addressed one of the first of these national conferences of editorial writers half a century ago. The Sage of Baltimore began by saying:

"If an old editorial writer who long ago reformed may be permitted to advise his present superiors, I should say that the thing you want to discuss in this organization is the fundamental thing: Why have editorials at all? Why do you give columns a day to solemn discourses - and when they are supposed to be lively, they are even more solemn, in my opinion - filling space with the opinions of unknown and in many cases not-worth-knowing men?"

And he went on in the same ill temper, as Mr. Mencken tended to do: "An editorial, to have any rationale at all, should say something. An editorial writer has only one excuse for existence: that he has a positive opinion about a subject on which he is well informed, on which he knows more than the average man. And yet all he has to say is what you could hear in any barber shop - not from the customers but from the barbers!"

Ouch. He pleaded with the editorial writer of his times, "Let a little opinion get into your editorial columns." But even less opinion may appear in editorials these days, when it has become the practice to have an editorial board decide the paper's policy. The result is to dilute both prose and responsibility.

The result is editorials that sound as if they were written by and for bureaucrats. The only objection I would raise to Mr. Mencken's diagnosis of American opinion-makers is that he was too hard on . . . barbers. They do useful work.

My own barber goes by the name of Speed, a sobriquet he acquired in his youth - whether for his aptitude at stealing bases or watermelons, I'm not sure. He has since given up both pastimes to become a barber-shop sage. Ol' Speed could teach some of the editorial writers here a few things about pithy eloquence.

For instance, on the subject of whether Hillary Clinton is going to go for the White House next year, opinion here is tentative and uncertain, as it may be in Miss Hillary's own camp. Editorial writers may speculate on the question at stultifying length, but the other day Speed summed up Senator Clinton's subtly shifting stance with the perfect metaphor:

"She's like a runner on first shifting her weight to her hind foot."

That is, she's not taking off yet, just gettin' set to - should the opportunity arise.

Mr. Mencken would surely have changed his hasty opinion of barbers if he'd ever met Speed.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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